What Does It Matter To Me If You're Tech-Savvy?

As a longtime watcher of real estate and technology, but still just a consumer in every respect, I have a question for the technology-savvy realtors.

What does it matter to me, as a consumer, if you’re a tech-savvy agent?

It’s a real question, actually, because at this point, I’m not sure what the answer is.  Let me explain.

Technology = Productivity, Right?

One of the hallmarks of technology in any field, in every endeavor, is that it makes things more efficient.  And as a result, it creates productivity gains.

For example, word processing software makes it possible to create multiple copies of a finished document in a matter of minutes, rather than hours that it might have taken with a typewriter, whiteout (do people even know what whiteout is anymore?), carbon paper, and the like.  It also makes it possible to reuse frequently-used documents by editing an existing document, rather than having to recreate the whole thing on a typewriter.  The typewriter in turn makes it possible to create documents in a fraction of the time it might take to write it out by longhand, then send to a typesetter to put through the printing press.  And so on and so forth.

Every single piece of technology one can think of, from the steam engine to the latest iPad app, has productivity implications.

Presumably, real estate is no different.  What might have taken days in the past (for example, circulating listing data throughout the MLS) now takes minutes as one can login to the Internet, go to the MLS website, and enter the data directly as opposed to having to send some piece of paper to the MLS headquarters by mail to be printed into the listing book or some such.

Advertising a property for sale went from having to call the classified advertising department of various local newspapers to place an order to automatic syndication to hundreds of websites.  Presumably, there were efficiency gains along the way for the agent and the broker.

So Where Are the Savings?

In every other industry, the advance of technology has meant savings for the consumer.  This 2003 GAO report (PDF), for example, suggests that the growth of the Internet in the air travel business has meant lower costs for consumers who use the Internet to book their own tickets.  In real estate, various studies suggest that the exact opposite has occurred.

First, we have the 2005 GAO Report on brokerage commissions (PDF) which concludes:

Various studies using data from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s found evidence that the majority of listings in many communities clustered around the same rate, exactly 6 percent or 7 percent.  Although these studies and observations do not indicate that there has been complete uniformity in commission rates, they do suggest that variability has been limited.  Many of the industry analysts and participants we interviewed said that commissions still cluster around a common rate within most markets, and they generally cited rates of 5 percent to 6 percent as typical now. (Page 9)

Second, we have this paper from the AEI-Brookings Institute which finds:

In fact, the strange nature of the fee structure has led the industry and press to report that average commission rates have “fallen” from about 6 percent to 5.1 percent between 1991 and 2004. Those figures, however, are somewhat suspect and misleading. Even accepting them, the average commission has still increased in dollars over that period, even after adjusting for inflation. Furthermore, any decrease in the rate appears to be primarily due to brokers’ willingness to charge somewhat lower rates for the increasing number of much higher-priced listings. One would have expected that an information and communication-based industry, like real estate brokerage, would enjoy tremendous cost efficiencies from the development of the Internet, databases, and other communication technologies.16 Yet it appears that traditional brokers generally have not passed on their cost savings to consumers in the form of lower fees. (Nadel, Mark S., A Critical Assessment of the Standard, Traditional Residential Real Estate Broker Commission Rate Structure (October 3, 2006). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=942348. Emphasis in original)

Both studies suggest that there is tremendous competition within the real estate brokerage industry — a fact that everyone who knows anything about real estate does know.  But they both think it’s odd that there is no price competition.

I have a different question.  Assuming that technology in real estate does in fact lead to efficiency gains and productivity gains for the real estate agent… what is the benefit to the consumer?

Why, as a consumer, should I care that you are techno-savvy?

Real Estate Technology Overwhelmingly Concerned with Marketing

Fact is, real estate technology is concerned mostly with marketing and new customer acquisition.  Think about the social media craze, for example.  The justification for all the blogging is to acquire new customers, as they see that the blogging realtor is a real estate expert.  The justification for FaceBook and Twitter is that they help to attract more customers, or help the agent work her sphere of influence more effectively.  IDX websites, focus on SEO, listings syndication, etc. are all designed to attract new customers, or to help the listing agent land the listing contract.

And those advances are all welcome, and they are innovative in themselves.

Thing is, once you are a customer, there’s precious little technology that comes into play.  Consider, for example, how many mobile apps there are designed to market a listing or to attract new customers (which are often the same thing, since listings draw buyer inquiries, which may be directed elsewhere).  How many mobile apps are there designed to make the real estate transaction more efficient?  Apart from DocuSign, I can’t think of any technology off the top of my head that is about making the actual transaction itself more efficient for the consumer or the professional.

Tale of Two Agents

As a result, I cannot rightly think of why I, as a consumer, should use a techno-savvy agent over a luddite agent.  So let’s do just that.  Let’s say that I want to buy or sell a home, and my choices are between a techno-savvy agent (let’s call her Mara) and a stuck-in-the-dark-ages agent (let’s call him Luddy).

Let’s say Mara is equipped with the latest in technology, IDX-enabled website, full listing syndication, mobile applications, the iPad, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the rest of it.  Let’s say Mara is all kitted out with DocuSign (electronic signatures on documents), online transaction management systems, and the like.

Luddy, in contrast, is a dinosaur whose only concession to technology is that he has a cellphone.  Not an iPhone, nor a BlackBerry, but just a plain old cellphone.  He also has a 3-year old PC, and hires a young assistant to help him enter listings into the MLS, and “do the computer thing” for him.  His idea of a transaction management system is a young woman who works in his office.

If I’m a seller, what is the difference between using Mara and using Luddy to sell my house?  We already see that I would be charged the same 5% or 6% by Mara and by Luddy.  So there is no difference in price, even though one could assume that Mara with her impressive technology infrastructure is able to work at a fraction of the effort that Luddy would have to put out.  So presumably, Mara’s online transaction management system is better than Luddy’s assistant, right?  How?

Nice iPhone app. Now tell me why I should care.

If I’m a buyer, what is the difference between using Mara and using Luddy to buy a house?  Consider as you think about this the fact that I probably have access to a bunch of tools and websites already that lets me search for properties to my heart’s content.  Chances are that I have access to a bunch of tools and sites that give me school info, crime data, weather patterns, sex offender lists, and the like.  So what would be the difference to me, as the consumer, between using Mara to buy my house and using Luddy?

Yes, I know that the value of the realtor remains.  People want local expertise, people want advice, people want someone else to do the dirty work of negotiations, ensuring inspections get done, showing houses, etc.  This scenario isn’t about whether consumers should use a real estate agent or not; of course they should.  This scenario is about whether consumers should use a techno-savvy agent or not.

If Mara’s not using the additional efficiency and productivity for additional benefits to me the consumer, since she’s charging me the same as Luddy, why do I care that she’s technologically plugged in?

Your thoughts are particularly welcome on this topic.


31 thoughts on “What Does It Matter To Me If You're Tech-Savvy?”

  1. How about time on market? Can the tech-savvy agent get the house sold faster? And I think statistics show that the longer a property is on the market, the lower the sale price drops. Marketing goes both ways. The REALTOR needs to market themselves and how well they do that may be indicative of how well they can market your house.

  2. A small novel could be written. I'll throw 3 paragraphs on the pile.

    1. I think “compression” is a big deal. Technology has compressed time and expectation. Generally, due to technology, we all expect it faster. When we ping someone, cell, eMail, text, Tweet, Facebook, etc., we expect a quick response. We want it fast and we want it now. If we have a question, we expect the answer or multiple options. If Luddy is working a sisimple cell phone and Marla is kitted, odds are she responds in a manner that matches the clients expectations. All things being equal, Marla is more choosable, because she's faster and responsive in the way the client expects. In this case the benefit to the consumer is convenience, timely/tailored communication and maybe more accurate information (assuming Marla knows how to bang around and find things out).

    2. Personally, I don't see all this technology, tech-savvy stuff as a lead generator. I think lead generation in terms of attracting strangers is minimal and extra had work. My thought is that understanding and using technology as a tool, allows an previously unfamiliar or semi-familiar person to become trustingly-familiar (by embracing smart socia media/networking strategies). Familiarity, combined with trustworthy behaviors, conversations, etc., builds Top Of Mind Awareness and trust. Also, humans generally believe that if you act and conduct yourself modernly-professional, your more likely to be professional. It's still true, personal experience, studies and surveys confirm, the majority of buyers and sellers only consider 1 or 2 agents, usually someone they know, someone they've used or someone recommended by a friend. In this case tech-savvy Marla will out Top-Of-Mind and out-impress Luddy, she's more choosable. Luddy has to physically connect with everyone Marla connects with virtually. Our left brains catalogue virtual conversations and experiences as real (that's why we cry during a good movie). It's an impossible task for Luddy to touch as many or a much as Marla.

    This would be a cool discussion over beers, I'm looking forward to reading the comments.

    3. Lastly, perception is reality. Again, all things being equal, if Marla beams her tech-savvy wisely, there's a HALO effect. For example, whip out an iPad, finger swipe your way through a listing presentation, or show pictures, etc. All the tech/social media buzz attracts attention. If you look, sound and act like you're in the know, you become more attractive and therefore more choosable.

    My 3 cents.

  3. “Tech-savvy” in real estate still has a fairly low bar. Being able to focus a digital camera, send a text message or answer an email should be minimum requirements to functioning in this business. Maybe consumers don't benefit from a tech-savvy agent as much as other agents prefer to work with tech-savvy agents!

    For those who choose to be uneducated about the basic technology tools of real estate, I have to wonder if they are up-to-date on laws, customs, forms, mortgages, short sales, or anything else that is constantly changing. I know a few “old timers” who still work with their past clients without much technology knowledge, but they are a dwindling population, and many of us cringe when we have to work with “Luddy” on the other side of our sale.

  4. For the past ten years being a techsavvyrealtor gave my clients bleeding edge photography and the cream of the crop for multicolor brochures. Techsavvy means using the latest tech, edge tech, to redefine traditional roles and ways of doing things, while maintaining the successful modes of the past. Tech piles on the features made available to the consumer, the techsavvy agent does more things in the same time. I was “publishing” my listings 7 or 8 years ago, using wide angle photography 15 yrs ago, printed brochures online in 20th Century.

    The consumer gets what the consumers want, all the tech never made me an elite, but it did attract me to like minded clients. The individual is still at the core of productivity.

  5. Back in the day before all the techsavvyness necessary to be successful in this business, there wasnt the expectation to market a house on every real estate website out there and to have professional brochures with photoshopped wide angle lens photos of beautifully staged houses ( who ever heard of staging 10 years ago?), and then of course the virtual tours, interactive floorplans on every listing, and the tools ( blackberry) to respond within 15 minutes and then follow up so that no lead falls through the cracks ( top producer).

    The agents who do all of this for our listings are doing WAY more than we ever did back in the 80's and 90's. And our costs are higher because we need to hire assistants to help us do it because we're realtors, not techys. Our most dollar productive activities are spent in front of clients, not photoshopping pictures and adding listings to websites.

    When I have a relocation buyer, I've videoed houses for them w/ my flip cam. The consumer definitely benefits. Remember our friend Patrick Healy couldnt find an agent in his area tech savvy enough for him? Consumers expect ALOT today. They want the home sale stats, the town videos, community updates on blogs…. and we provide that for them, so how can you say that the consumer is not the one who benefits from this? They are getting more value from us than they ever have in the past.

  6. Rob, Another thought provoking post, a few comments on following the tech bunny down the rabbit hole.

    I believe that DocuSign and Zip Forms have been the most productive software solutions for the real estate agent. Saves a bunch of time, paper, and running around.

    I also think Altos Market Research has saved me thousands of hours of work. Omni-Focus runs my world, my iPhone saves me hours per day, and API services distribute my listings far and wide. Acrobat.com allows me on-line screen sharing for contract preparation and review, shared collaboration of documents, and on-line transaction storage. Text expander, 1Password, and Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro.

    Many agents are looking to Tech to be a magic pill while it really is just a tool to become more efficient and serve the Client better. Some of these tools take so long to implement and utilize that they don't save any time or make the agent any more productive. Many things are best left to the old fashioned ways until technology catches up and fills the void.

    And yes, technology does not yet replace experience and local knowledge or knowing how to respond to a complex negotiation to move a transaction forward.

    Time is ever becoming more important and information overload is at a breaking point. Having been a tech savvy agent for the last 20 years I have honed down my arsenal to those tools with the sharpest edges that give me more time to pay attention to the Client and the transaction. After all that is what they pay me for and they should have as much of my attention as possible.

    So to summarize Technology gives me more time to be a better REALTOR® more responsive to my Clients needs. And that my friend is precious in our day and age.

  7. The appropriate use of today's tools reveals a lot about a practitioner. Their commitment to staying up with or ahead of their clients, follow through and knowledge. Hands down the blogging agents in my offices are far more knowledgeable about well… everything than those are aren't online. However in some there is a trade off… They may know more about the rules, regs and latest government program but they have a tremendous problem relating to people.

    I don't care how many gadgets I possess and how masterful of Sql and CSS I become, if I can't really engage a client and meet their needs off=line it's all for naught.

    We have some very powerful producers in our company and there is a common thread amongst them. They are NOT active in the Realtor Association, the outsource almost all their online marketing to a staff member or marketing firm and they are FANTASTIC with people. That often runs contrary to our “social media” friends who are often heavily involved in the Association and spend countless hours (raising my hand) perfecting their blog writing.

    Technology is good and it is my mainstay in marketing, but it's just a tool like say an MLS book used to be. Knowing how to work with people and engage them where they are is far more important than any mobile app. It's why I don't care how “tech savvy” you are…

  8. Rob, Thanks for the mention of DocuSign. While I can't be 100% unbiased, I can say that I'd rather work with an agent who has the tools that enable me to seal the deal in the easiest way possible. For example, if I had to submit an apartment application form via fax or in-person drop off, it would be a hassle for me. If I had the option of using DocuSign, I'd rather do that even if it doesn't translate into cost savings. It's easier and quicker for me to be able to sign from my desk at work, my blackberry / iPhone at the grocery store, or right there, in person on the iPad.

    Granted in person, I could do the paper form, but who really wants to do data entry from my, or the leasing agent's chicken scratch? 😉

    Thanks again for the mention, Rob!

  9. Communication – ease and speed – are what make the tech savvy REALTOR the best choice from the beginning to end of the transaction:

    Luddy's transaction manager won't be able to quell an emotional meltdown or provide a due diligence resource 'off hours' if Luddy's not near the office phone–that client will have to wait for a return call 'the next business day'. The client will DM Mara on Twitter, find her on 4SQ or simply text her to get an immediate response.

    Technology makes it easier for Rs to manage the client and the transaction easily and in many cases, instantly.

    Technology also makes risk reduction easier for the agents and their clients. Mara will have an e-date/time stamp where Luddy will have a call log handwritten by that unlicensed transaction manager. Mara's client will have the added assurance that they are being protected during the transaction.

  10. I'd love to see the study that shows the diff between a 'tech-savvy' agent and a non-tech agent in terms of objective performance data…

    Of course, there is a threshold problem of defining the “tech-savvy” agent. 🙂


  11. Ken – I think I agree generally with everything you said. 🙂 But note how #2 and #3 are still concerned mostly with marketing and new client acquisition. Your point #1 is related to actually being more efficient during the transaction itself.

    The issue is going to be, if Mara is (let's say) 50% more efficient than Luddy, shouldn't some of that efficiency pass to the consumer in the form of savings? If not, and this is the conclusion I am forced to draw from your and other people's comments, then it follows that Luddy is ripping people off by charging the same amount that Mara does, without providing the same set of benefits.

    But questions still remain — once you start getting into 'unbundling' scenarios. 🙂 More on that later.


  12. You're welcome! And thanks for developing the DocuSign technology 🙂 It's one of the few really clear examples of real-estate related technologies that aren't about getting new clients, but is about improving the efficiency of the transaction itself. 🙂


  13. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. As I said on Twitter to Keith Garner, I'm not suggesting that tech-savvy agents don't provide value; I'm asking what the value they provide actually is. There is a next step to the inquiry of course. 🙂

    So far, the responses appear to be (in essence), that the tech-savvy agent is providing the level of service that consumers have come to expect. One conclusion is that the Luddys of the world are overcharging their clients. It seems to me that NAR, brokerages, AoR's and the like ought to produce a list of what a client should expect to get from the realtor who is charging the full freight, and seek to educate the consumers on what it is that they are paying for.

    At the same time, apart from “ease and speed of communication”, I'm not certain that I've heard anything compelling in terms of how technology is helping realtors become more efficient and more productive. I'm not convinced yet that Twitter is an appropriate medium for communicating the details of the negotiation with your client — nor is Facebook for that matter. I don't see how a blog helps the agent tell the client about home inspection issues that have arisen in the course of his transaction. Foursquare is fun, but how that helps me the actual client understand the impact of municipal zoning for my house is unclear to me. Since Luddy and Mara both have mobile phones, and I can't think of a “digital technology” yet that can replace either the phone call or the face-to-face in terms of communicating detailed information and advice… let's just say that the jury is out on whether the tech-savvy realtor is really providing that much more value to the actual client.

    Since the general trend in every industry is that advances in technology results in the consumer getting more while simultaneously paying less (think about your average cellphone and what you get on it today, often for free from the mobile service provider, compared to what you got for the top-of-the-line phone just five years ago), I have to wonder if the technology vendors in our industry have focused far too much on marketing-related technology and not enough on transaction efficiency technology.

    I personally think a case can be made that the tech-providers to our industry have largely failed to produce innovations that would enable the professional to deliver more services at lower cost. This is something the #vendorwhores amongst us should consider seriously.


  14. Very interesting indeed. I think Rob Overman was correct in bringing up the point about results.

    It will not matter to consumers how tech savvy or non tech savvy you are if you do not produce the results and provide the level of service they expect. At least in my opinion.

    That being said, I must think about how or if my attempts to become tech savvy are really helping my clients and helping to provide the best service I can. Thanks for the food for thought as always.

  15. Question: If Luddy sells a house on Maple St. in two weeks, while Mara sells the clone of that home a half block away, also in two weeks, and for the same price, more or less, which seller is ahead?

    I dunno, how many angels are there on the head of a hard drive? 🙂

    The commissions haven't gone down, cuz the value of a sale TO THE SELLER hasn't lost value over time. Period. If you insist on debating it, explain why discount 'high-tech' brokerages die on the vine in two of the three possible markets? The only time they succeed is when your blind, three-legged mutt could sell a house in a couple hours.

    Rob's right — technology hasn't done squat when it comes to moving real estate in a real sense. It sells, or expires for the same reasons listings did back in 1969. Nothing has changed. It's the techies who wanna convince you of this huge phantom paradigm shift. It simply doesn't exist.

    Will it ever? Who has that answer? Not me. Technology has enriched brokers, not clients.

  16. I think it's about response time and quality of information provided to the client. Luddy cannot respond as fast or provide the information to the buyer as fast as Mara. So technology brings value to the buyer and the seller but with that being said real estate is still a face to face business. Technology is a tool not a “Silver Bullet”. I'm so stoked so many of my competitors haven't embraced technology. Just remember the guys who used to make buggy whips. Where are they today?

  17. I think there are 3 major points here:
    1. Communication
    2. Access to information
    3. Transaction management

    Regardless of which letter of the alphabet my clients fall into I am finding that almost all of them are expecting from me immediate communication (email or text), information received electronically, and when the sale gets down, the transaction handled efficiently and again electronically.

    Just like in most other industries, real estate brokerages are moving away from “the secretary”.

    I happen to use social networking because I find I learn alot from others including you. Many agents who produce much more than I don't tweet and Facebook but are highly connected to their clients. I think the that's the key and part of the expected service.

    As a listing agent, would Luddy be able to market your listing effectively? Representing you in your sale would he be able to use the necessary resources to negotiate on your behalf.

    Can Luddy email me your offer so I can email it to my seller? Do I need to check my spam file for that aol email? Or we can wait for him to get into his office so the secretary can fax it to me?

    I think there is huge value if the agents can communicate with each other as well as their clients.
    The other issue is it does not matter if you pay for all these tools, it is knowing how and using them.

  18. Great question as I have lost business to much lower tech people who claimed to be up on all this internet stuff.

    On the other hand, when out with home buyers, they can't understand when an agent hasn't uploaded any friggin' pictures as they jump from Zillow to Redfin for a photo or two. And as an active real estate agent, I am amazed when agents don't put down proper map coordinated and simply state “use your GPS”. Tech savvy also means making it easy for the consumer to get the information. So to ask if it matters to today's consumer seems pretty naive.

    What's your fax number?

  19. I think one thing missing from this discussion is the power of relationships and sales. At the end of the day, a client chooses or doesn't choose a Realtor because of their relationship to that person. That is Sales 101. I pick who I like to work with. Who I like is a factor of what I like. If I like information and that tech savvy Realtor provides it, I choose that Realtor. Tech-savvy Realtors are a growing niche because there are more tech-savvy consumers. I think this has nothing to do with value add to the end consumer. It is simple sales.

  20. Actually, I was calling out the fact that so much of real estate technology is concerned with sales, and new customer acquisition, and almost not at all concerned with client service. But since we're on the topic…

    Isn't it a problem that a client chooses or doesn't choose a realtor because of his relationship to the person, rather than any consideration of competence, knowledge, expertise, or service? Consumers don't pick a heart surgeon because of a relationship, and they don't choose a lawyer to defend them in a trial based on likability. There is, in my mind, a direct correlation between the degree that “like” dictates the choice of a realtor and the degree to which real estate brokerage is not a true profession.

    And to the extent that “technology” continues to make “likability” the main reason for choosing a real estate agent, I regard it as part of the problem, rather than the solution. Don't you?

  21. Very well-written. I would mention that, from a consumer's perspective, having a more tech-savvy agent is beneficial once you factor in the amount of time going over a contract and hunting down fax machines. As a consumer, I'd rather just eSign and review my contract online using a system like DotLoop. Not many consumers have a fax machine, but almost all have a computer. Besides, if I can buy a car online, why not a house?

  22. Seems to me the social/communicative tech is more peacock feathers than beaks and claws. It attracts clients by communicating an image of professionalism, it simply doesn't do that much of preactical benefit in a industry whose vital skills are almost all people skills — salesmanship, negotiation, organization. I mean, what do most people want from a realtor? To be shown the most revelant houses, get their bid accepted at the best possible price, and have the relevant legal/fiscal proceedures got through as smoothly as possible. Knowledge of local markets, an ability to understand people and intuit their likes and dislikes, being responsive and organized, and negotiation skills. At least from the buy side. On the sell side the better you are at the web the better you might do at reeling in the fish, given that most people start looking there.

  23. Seems to me the social/communicative tech is more peacock feathers than beaks and claws. It attracts clients by communicating an image of professionalism, it simply doesn't do that much of preactical benefit in a industry whose vital skills are almost all people skills — salesmanship, negotiation, organization. I mean, what do most people want from a realtor? To be shown the most revelant houses, get their bid accepted at the best possible price, and have the relevant legal/fiscal proceedures got through as smoothly as possible. Knowledge of local markets, an ability to understand people and intuit their likes and dislikes, being responsive and organized, and negotiation skills. At least from the buy side. On the sell side the better you are at the web the better you might do at reeling in the fish, given that most people start looking there.

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